The Nevsky Wall
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Chapter 8   -  Clouds Rose Over the City

September 4

Within the week, Larissa was on a plane to Moscow. It was the first stop on a long journey that would take her to Alma-Ata, a desert city in the far corner of Kazakhstan that was outside the reach of the enemy. All of the major film companies were relocating, along with other vital industries, government offices, and the universities. At the same time, two trains left under cover of night carrying the great treasures of the Hermitage museum. It seemed the soul of the nation was slowly draining east by rail.

Some chose to stay. Alex was one of a handful of newsreel cameramen who decided, against advice, to remain in the city. Grusky, the director-general, had gotten his wish and been reassigned to the Moscow office. His unfortunate replacement – Alex figured he must either be incompetent or had greatly offended someone to get the post – tried his best to remain invisible and let the cameramen make their own assignments. This new-found freedom pleased Alex, though he knew it came at the price of a self-imposed captivity.

He stopped at the newsreel studio in the late morning. Nicholai, still manning the front desk, handed him a note. Alex was confused by it.

“When did you get this?” he asked Nicholai.

“A man gave it to me first thing. Big man – didn’t say much. It had your name on it.”

The note was written in a practiced hand. It was a summons, ordering Alex to come at once to an office in the Smolny complex. The name at the bottom of the note was Boris Gamerev.

Boris Gamerev. Alex knew the name from Larissa, who had invoked it in moments of frustration or when she was particularly nervous about an upcoming project. He understood that Boris was a man of influence, someone she could turn to when a problem needed solving. It was a name she spoke in passing and without elaboration. Larissa was fearless in most respects, but Alex could tell that she was afraid of Boris Gamerev.

Only once did she go into any great detail about Boris – on the day before she left the city. She and Alex had said their goodbyes at the back table of a small café near the studio. She didn’t like public scenes of emotion – unless they were scripted. Before they parted, she held Alex’s hand and looked at him with such a serious expression that it took him by surprise.

“I need you to know something,” she said. “There’s a man – I’m sure I’ve mentioned him – his name is Boris. Boris Gamerev. He has some job with the government. I’ve dealt with him for many years now, and I’m hopelessly in his debt.” She leaned forward and motioned for Alex to do the same. “He knows you – don’t ask me how, but he does. He asks me questions about you, very personal questions, and I’ve had to tell him things about us that I didn’t want to tell. You must be careful with this man. Very careful.” She pointed at Alex, as if to punctuate the statement. “Don’t let him bring you into his world, even if it sounds like the right thing to do. Promise me, please, that you’ll do your best to avoid him.” Alex had promised.

And now he held a summons from the very same man.

He took a tram to the Smolny, an impressive collection of buildings by the Neva that had previously served as a convent and an institute for women. It was now the headquarters for local government and the defense of the city. Alex stepped from the tram and had trouble at first finding his bearings. It took him a moment to realize that the entire complex had been covered with a huge camouflage net painted to make it look, from above, like a city park. He handed the note from Boris to one of the guards and was shown through into the grounds. The netting above him rustled and fluttered in the breeze like a forest canopy as he walked to Boris’s office.

He was expected, and an assistant motioned him from the anteroom to the engraved oak door and into a dark paneled office. Wooden crates of varying sizes sat in a corner, each filled with carefully bundled objects packed in straw. The massive desk at the center of the room was noticeably out of proportion to the slight, well-dressed man sitting behind it. Boris was having an animated telephone conversation, in turns smiling and scowling, but never raising his voice. He waved for Alex to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs near the desk. The call ended, and from a silver case on the desk, Boris removed a lighter and two Turkish cigarettes. He lit one of the cigarettes, took a long draw, then handed it to Alex. He lit the other for himself.

“Madame Tarkova has told me that you’ve decided against leaving,” said Boris. “Can that be true?”

Alex nodded stiffly, still not sure what to do with the cigarette. “Yes, comrade, I have an assignment in the city – for now.”

“Is that wise? As you can see, I’m preparing to leave on tomorrow’s flight. The wolf, as they say, is at the door.” Boris smiled – a look of disdain meant to convey a confident disregard of danger. “There are people looking out for you, Alex, and they’re offering you a seat on that flight.” Alex said nothing.

“You can trust me, I’ve survived a long time in this mad world. You can learn from my example. The key to my survival is having well-placed friends.” Boris stopped to consider this statement. “Well, not exactly friends, because I have no friends in the way that most people define the word. Friends, in that sense, are a liability. A friend will betray you as quickly as an enemy – quicker, in fact. When a man holds out a hand and says ‘Let’s be friends’, I always keep a close watch on his other hand. Friendship is not the basis for a lasting relationship. No. What you should look for is mutual need, mutual ambition, or best of all, mutual depravity. I find that the most important relationships are forged over a drink at the brothel … or through an introduction to an eager young actress.” He paused again, looking for a reaction from Alex. “We all need something – something that quickens the blood and makes us feel less like a walking corpse. If you understand that need, you understand a person better than any friend.”

As Boris spoke, Alex was transfixed by his manner and the cold, casual way he set himself apart from common morality. His voice was soft and hypnotic and his gestures were restrained. Dressed like a gentleman, he had the instincts of a predator. He was a man driven by pure self-interest. Larissa’s warnings in the café began to make sense.

“Why do I tell you this?” continued Boris. “Why do I open myself to you in this way – which is quite rare for me, I assure you.” He crossed from the desk and sat in a chair next to Alex. “I see in you a reflection of myself. I’ve watched you over the years, and you’ve grown to become a practical young man. And I use the word practical with the highest regard. Practical men like you and I understand how the world works, and we aren’t afraid to do what is necessary. I hear this talk of the ‘new soviet citizen’, full of selfless idealism and sacrifice – and it’s laughable. I haven’t met one, and I doubt that I ever will. I wouldn’t recognize such a man if I did. But I know you. I won’t insult you by saying we’re friends – I’ve made that distinction clear – but I feel there is an undeniable connection between us.”

He let the suggestion float in the air between them. His small, smooth hands – they reminded Alex of the hands of a child – lay folded neatly in his lap. Alex tried desperately to calculate his position, to consider his next move. What, exactly, did this man want from him?

Boris rose and returned to the desk. “I tell you these things because your decision to stay confuses me. It seems out of character for you. As you may know, your mother and I were schoolmates many years ago.” Alex couldn’t recall her ever mentioning Boris. “I offered my help to her when your father was … well, let’s just say that she’s a proud woman. Instead, I’ve tried to keep my eye on you, assisting where I could from behind the scenes. It gives me great pleasure to do it. I’ve also kept my eye on Madame Tarkova for quite some time. Talented woman. And she has such interesting things to say about you.” A look of satisfaction crossed his face.

Alex stood and quite impulsively stubbed out his cigarette on the top of the silver case. “Comrade, you say you know me. Then you should know I’m not going to sit here and listen to your … implications. If you want something from me, then let’s have it. Otherwise, I have work to do.”

Boris’s eyes flashed and he clapped his small hands together. “Wonderful! Such passion! Your father’s son, there’s no doubt about it. But, please, sit.” Alex remained standing. “I didn’t ask you here to coerce you – quite the opposite. You have your reasons to stay and I respect you for them. Elena and the young doctor need your attention – I understand.” Alex bristled at the use of his mother’s name and the reference to Vera. “I knew you wouldn’t accept my offer, but I felt obliged to extend it nonetheless. I haven’t misjudged you, Alex, not at all. I know you – remember that.”

Alex turned and walked to the door. From behind him, he heard Boris say, “I know you, and I will continue to keep my eye on you.”

Still seething, Alex returned to the courtyard and its arching canopy. He thought how easy it was to obscure the true nature of things – buildings, people, the circumstances of one’s life. The idea of Boris pulling strings on his behalf for these past – what was it, years? – made him ill, as did any connection between this man and his mother. But surely, he figured, Boris would soon be a world away. How far could his reach extend? And why would Boris care about him when the whole world was in flames? He thought of Larissa, still under Boris’s control, still – how had she put it – ‘hopelessly in his debt’. It made him reconsider every conversation, every aspect of his relationship with her since the day they’d met. Such was the corrupting force of this little man.

Just then, there was a commotion above him, and Alex looked up to see a pair of crows caught beneath the camouflage netting. They flew into it again and again, but the gauge of the net was too narrow for their wings to pass through. They flapped and screeched and turned on one other, fighting for escape. Alex stopped and watched them struggle like this for some minutes until, exhausted, they flew down to the lawn. As he left the grounds of the Smolny, he looked back to see the crows pecking at the dirt, guarding their newfound territory. They had become resigned, it seemed, to their imprison­ment.

A few days passed and the phantom air raids continued – to the point where the people of Leningrad stopped taking notice. Alex was on the street near his apartment when he heard the sirens and, shortly thereafter, the sound of planes. The Germans had been in the habit of flying reconnaissance missions over the city to terrorize the population, so he thought nothing of it. But this time, as the planes flew over, he heard the sound of explosions coming from the southwest, clearly within the city limits. He guessed that they were targeting either the Kirov Works or the southern rail yards. By the time the anti-aircraft batteries let loose, the planes had passed.

People panicked, scattering into doorways or running back to their apartments. Instinct took over and they instantly forgot everything they had been taught in the civil defense lectures. Alex was no different. He stood in the entranceway to his building until the all-clear was sounded and received a stern warning from the local CD officer. This first raid was short, but it had the desired effect. An hour later, Alex noticed that half the people he passed on the street were carrying their gasmasks.

That evening, he went to see his mother, thinking, with the day’s events, that she might need some company. He brought along a small duffle with food, candles, some clothes and the newsreel camera. He’d begun to take it everywhere he went. You never know when history or the perfect image will present itself – that was his theory.

He knocked on Elena’s door and was caught off-guard when Vera answered. Elena sat in her chair next to the radio listening to the last few notes of a Prokofiev piano sonata.

“I just arrived,” Vera whispered to him. “You must be a mind-reader.”

The sonata ended and Elena turned off the radio. “I was glad when Serge came back from Paris,” she said, referring to her old classmate. “The new compositions are his best in years.” She took Vera’s hand and reached out to Alex. “It’s good to see the two of you together. I only wish the times were better.” She pointed to a plate by the radio, “Vera brought some sweets. Dear girl.”

Elena poured tea and the three of them sat and ate sweets. The music brought back memories of the Conservatory, and she talked at length about her competition days – something she hadn’t spoken about in years. Alex hadn’t known what to expect that evening, but her mood was surprisingly light and open. He took the opportunity to ask a question.

“Mama, I spoke with another old classmate of yours today. His name is Boris Gamerev – do you remember him?”

She said nothing for a moment, and he could see a flicker of recognition in her eyes, but she did her best to hide it. “Gamerev … no, I don’t think I remember someone by that name.” She paused. “Why … why do you ask?”

“It’s not important,” said Alex. “I guess he wasn’t very memorable.” He didn’t want to press the issue, but it was clear from her reaction that there was more to the story. After that, her mood was a bit more somber and she stopped talking about her school days. Vera told a funny story about her friend Galina, a sweet but empty-headed young woman, who seemed to find trouble at every turn.

Suddenly, there was an eruption of sirens and AA fire, followed quickly by a series of explosions – much closer than the ones from earlier in the day. The room shook, there were screams from the adjoining apartments, and the three of them ran out into the hallway. “This building has a shelter, take her there!” Alex said to Vera. “I’ll be right behind you!” Vera and Elena followed the rush of frightened tenants into the stairway and down to the basement, while Alex ran back to the apartment to get his bag. New explosions, as close as before, rattled the building. The shock waves played strange chords on the strings of Elena’s piano. Zuzu, the cat, darted from one corner of the room to the other and hid under Elena’s bed.

Alex grabbed his bag and ran to the stairway, but instead of following the others to the basement, he pushed through the crowds and climbed the stairs to the roof. “You can’t be up here! Only authorized members of … oh, is that you, young Alex Antonovich.” It was Old Nicosian, dressed in his civil defense uniform and helmet. He was accompanied on the roof by two teenage assistants, sand buckets nervously at the ready.

“Yes Nicosian, it’s me. It’s OK,” said Alex, as he crossed over to the east side of the roof. In the near distance, perhaps only a mile away, he could see flames starting to rise. The blood-red flames played with the sweeping searchlights to light up the evening sky and create silhouettes of the intervening buildings. The first clouds of thick smoke from the fires had already reached Alex and the others. The smoke had a noticeably sweet smell – the sort of burnt sugar smell you’d find in a confectioner’s shop.

“It could be the Badayev,” said Nicosian, referring to the area that housed the central meat and grain warehouses. “If it’s not the Badayev, then it’s very close,” Alex reckoned from the location. The thought of the city’s food supplies going up in flames was incomprehensible. He needed to find out for himself.

The all-clear signal echoed from every direction. Alex left the roof and found his mother and Vera coming up the stairway from the shelter. “Where were you?” Vera said. “There’s a fire … I have to go there,” he told her. She agreed to stay with Elena until he returned. “Just be careful,” she said.

The streets were jammed with emergency vehicles and people hoping to catch a glimpse of the damage. Everything moved in that direction. Alex picked his way through the onlookers as the flames rose before him, now higher than even the tallest buildings. He could see the dark smoke billowing up hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet against the dusky sky, and he was still several blocks away when he began to feel the heat. The police turned away everyone who wasn’t involved in fighting the fire, but Alex was able to get through by showing his newsreel badge and camera.

Rounding a corner, he could see that it was, in fact, the Badayev warehouses that had been hit. Dozens of wooden buildings burned like rows of torches, the sugar and butter and meat stored in them acting as fuel. As he watched, one of the buildings exploded, sending a shower of burning liquid – cooking oil, perhaps – in all directions, adding to the flames. The smell of charred meat and burning sugar filled the air with a sickening sweetness. Warehouse rats scurried by him, fleeing the inferno.

It seemed every fire truck in the city was on the scene. Off-duty brigade members kept streaming in, some on foot and some on bicycles, to lend a hand. Those manning the hoses, the ones closest to the flames, wore thick coats and gloves, but they could only last a few minutes before being forced to retreat. Alex was a hundred yards from the fire and the heat was almost more than he could bear. He feared the rolls of film in his bag might burst into flame at any moment.

He walked around the perimeter of the fire, crouching behind a truck or a low wall when the heat or smoke became too intense, looking for the best angle to film. At the far end of the warehouses, a brigade pumped water directly from the Oblovsky Canal and he immediately recognized the man standing by the truck.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Viktor called out as he saw Alex approaching. His face was streaked with soot and his uniform was drenched from the spray of the hoses.

“I’m here to make you famous, brother.” Alex smiled and took the camera from his bag. He sat, his back against the wheel of the fire truck, loading the camera with night-quality film. Nearby, a member of the brigade sat while another poured a bucket of water over his head.

“The action is out there – her name is Anya,” said Viktor. He pointed to the figure, outlined in flames, at the end of the hose.

“Don’t argue with an artist,” said Alex as he lined up a shot. “There’s enough fame for everyone. Just turn a bit to the left.” Alex caught the reflected flames in Viktor’s blackened face. He spent the next hour, and all of his film, documenting the work of the brigade. They were engaged in a holding action – the best they could do was prevent the fires from spreading. The warehouses and all their contents were a total loss. Alex stayed with his brother, helping where he could, until dawn.

In the daylight they saw the full impact of the catastrophe. Acres of burnt-out buildings smoldered and stank in the cool, damp morning. The brigades combed the buildings with shovels and axes, looking for flare-ups, but the worst of the fire was over. Viktor and his exhausted comrades coiled hoses and prepared to leave.

In one fiery night, the main food stores for three million people were destroyed. Alex walked among the rubble, and for the first time since the beginning of the war, he felt a real sense of despair for his city. He came upon a pile of scattered tins, every one of them scorched and exploded by the heat. Though the ground had barely cooled, the warehouse rats, hundreds of them, had returned to feast on the charred contents. The summer of waiting was at an end. The enemy wall around Leningrad was about to close and there would be no escaping the flames.

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Chapter 8   -  Clouds Rose Over the City

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